Know Your Enemy #40

A veteran fire officer tells a gripping story of a fatal collapse that caused compulsory retirement to be instituted in New York.

Now Jack tells the story in his own words

The Background

In December 1946, I was aide to Chief Fred Kaiser of the 6th Battalion FDNY. For an extended period he was Acting Deputy Chief of the Second Division. We covered a large portion of the old loft district in Manhattan South of 14 Street.

Chief Kaiser was on vacation so I reverted to the 6th Battalion as aide to Acting Battalion Chief Albert Ermentraut (Captain of 28 Engine). Battalion Chief Bill Hogan was acting 2nd Division Deputy.

The Assistant Chief of Department (ACXX) on duty was 70 years old. He had had an excellent reputation as a fireman and officer but little experience in loft building fires. Firehouse gossip of his fire ground incompetence was rife. His decisions and orders were beyond understanding. He had stayed too long, and a common expression was, "He's going to kill somebody".

The Fire

On Dec. 31, 1946 at 5:27 a.m., Box 396 Broadway and Eighth Street was transmitted. Engines 72, 33, 25, H&Ls 3 and 20, Rescue 1, Water Tower 2, Fire Patrol 2, Battalion 6 and 2nd division responded. The high pressure system was automatically raised to 125 PSI.

The fire was on the 3rd floor of a seven-story loft building 25'x100' on the W/S of Broadway. Heavy smoke condition was found on arrival. At 5:51 a.m., the last due engine (held back for economy reasons) responded on a 7-5 signal (send full assignment).

Engine 72 stretched a 3" high pressure line to it's deckpipe and a 2 1/2 " handline up the stairway backed by a second hand line by 33 Engine. The tower and deckpipe were operated on fire showing from upper floors. A second alarm at 5:57 a.m. brought five more engines, a truck and the Third Battalion Chief.

Within 15 minutes a third alarm was sent bringing five more engines, another truck, the Second Battalion Chief and Assistant Chief XX. The high pressure was raised to 175 psi. The Water Tower and three deckpipes were operating into the upper floors.

The contents of the second, third and seventh floors were bedspreads. On the fourth floor there were slippers stored. These materials are ideal for soaking up the tons of water being poured into the building from high volume, heavy caliber streams.

When ACXX arrived after the third alarm, he assumed command and ordered ADC Hogan to take command of the rear of the building (New York has sectored fires from the beginning).

During this time, I was on the stairway just below the 3rd floor landing with ABC Ermentraut who was trying to push Engine 72 & Engine 33 onto the floor, which was impossible.

After almost an hour, he said to me, "this is a real old building. I don't know how long it can withstand the weight of all the water that's being poured into it. Go down and tell the Assistant Chief that he'd better back us out of here". I went down and there was no sign of the Assistant Chief. The only officer I saw was my Uncle Bill Cashman who was Deputy Chief of Fire Patrol. He told me that he had backed four units of the Fire Patrol out of the building 30 minutes earlier because he sensed an impending collapse. He told me that ACXX had gone to the rear.

There is rarely easy access to the rear of New York buildings. In order to get to the rear of the fire building, it was necessary to walk down 8th Street to the second doorway, climb the stairs to the 2nd floor, go out a window onto a so-called party fire escape which ran continuously the length of the rear of the Broadway buildings including the fire building #749. Engine companies were up on that fire escape trying to move in, but they were encountering stiff resistance.

I finally found the Assistant Chief up on the rear fire escape bellowing at ADC Hogan and the company officers telling them that they should push their units in on the floor. They in turn tried to tell him that the position was untenable and that a collapse was imminent!

His reply was to scream that they and their men were a bunch of fakers, that he never saw fakers like that where he came from. I in turn, tried to give him ABC Ermentraut's message but he paid no attention to me.